Book Review: Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America by Catherine Ryan Howard

As somebody who spends around 75% of his time daydreaming about being somewhere else travel books is a mixed blessing in that they give me new places to add to my destination wishlist but at the same time there’s something a little masochistic in reading about fantastic places and crazy experiences, it’s like watching Nigella Lawson on TV when you’re on a diet.

Most travel writers seem to have a similar outlook to me, only a bit more bravery, in that they want to see the world, meet new people and try new things to expand their experience and understanding of the world.

But, as the title of this book suggests CRH isn’t like this.

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She makes it clear early on that she is not the traditional backpacker. She is somebody who loves shopping, pampering and lounging by the pool. Neither does she buy into the traditional traveler ethos that globalization is bad and chain stores are the work of the devil, in fact she states quite clearly early on in the book that she loves Starbucks, Subway etc.

This makes the book oddly refreshing in a way, a story of roughing it by somebody who likes the easy life, exotic locations visited by someone who doesn’t really want to be there.

That’s not to say that the entire book is one long whinge about not enjoying herself, along the way she does embrace new experiences, thanks mainly to her traveling partner Sheelagh, an old friend who’s more enthusiastic and adventurous. Her friend keeps her going, both through encouragement and also due to CRH’s desire not to spoil the trip for her mate.

This is one of the things that makes CRH a likable narrator, she’s a genuinely nice person and extremely easy to relate to. In my own limited traveling experience I know that there are moments when you just want to be left alone, when you want to retreat into the familiar. I get that.

She’s also a writer who’s got a great knack for observation and describing people, as well as writing in this engaging, funny style. There are times when she’s incredibly frustrating, and she reminds me of the Helen Fielding character Bridget Jones, in that she has the same mix of likable goofiness and sweetness couples with at times frustrating shallowness, including the moment where her anti-malaria pills result in a loss of appetite and she views this as a positive as it’ll help her shift some weight.

Oh, and she slags off Steven Seagal, which is a yellow card in my book.

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But this makes her an extremely naturalistic writer, aware and acknowledging her own flaws as easily as she highlights those in others. Her foibles make her stand out as an interesting voice in the world of travel writing and there’s something admirable in the way she keeps going even when she’s out of her depth and the way she pushes herself to continue.

Verdict: A very entertaining light read, Howard writes with honesty and wit. She’s not always 100% likable, but who is. Funny, engaging and makes me want to do some more traveling. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Book Review: True Grit by Charles Portis

I picked up this book for a couple of quid and usually wouldn’t have bothered as I’ve seen the movie version of it. By the movie version I mean the awesome 1969 John Wayne movie. But hearing that the Coen Brothers had done a remake I was curious to see if there was more to the book and whether the Wayne version had changed and Hollywoodized the story.

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It turns out it hadn’t really.

It’s narrated by Mattie Ross, an aging old maid who recounts the story from her youth of her attempt to find justice for the murder of her father and bring his killer, Chaney to justice. In the pursuit of this man Mattie hires a tough deputy marshal, the one-eyed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, and reluctantly has to team up with LaBouef, a swaggering, cocky Texas Ranger who is after Chaney for the reward placed on him for an earlier crime.

They set out after Chaney and the gang he’s thrown in with, and Mattie begins to have doubts about the men she’s joined forces with, especially Cogburn who’s belligerence and drinking irks the rather straight-laced Christian girl, who tires of his bragging and debates whether he’s as good and tough as he says he is. Will they catch Chaney and deliver him to justice, and does Rooster really have “grit”?

When I said the film hasn’t changed much that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism as I love the Wayne movie, and the only real change comes from the Duke himself who makes Cogburn more endearing and charismatic in the movie.

Not entirely sure why they remade it now

Not entirely sure why they remade it now

Although I must admit I warmed to the character in the book too, although whether this is held over affection from the movie I couldn’t say. He was easily the character I liked the most, and I loved his roguish, stubborn ways.

Mattie is a good choice as narrator, and Portis writes well, having her wander off on tangents and little political rants, and throughout her rather stuck up, pious attitudes come through. In a way this serves to make Cogburn and LaBouef the better characters, the more this irritating preachy woman tells us of their flaws and sins, the more I found myself developing more affection for them.

But I don’t want to be too harsh on Mattie as she’s not all bad as a character and she shows integrity and intelligence throughout, and also quite a lot of bravery. She’s a very strong female role in a genre where the fairer sex are often marginalized.

Mainly her attitudes serve to highlight the changing of times, her religion and civilized ways representing the modern era moving in and forcing out the anarchic, free spirited world of the Wild West out of existence. Cogburn is a dinosaur in some ways, a relic of that era and the book shows that his fast shooting ways which had formerly been the norm are quickly becoming viewed in a different light by society.

This point is even clearer in the closing stages of the book, where Mattie sums up what became of the major players since the events of the book. Frank James, the notorious outlaw appears, now making money in a “Wild West” show, celebrating a fictionalized version of America’s formative years.

Portis writes all his characters well and the novel whips along at quite a good pace, he’s also blessed with a knack for sly wit, whether in Mattie’s observations of Rooster and LaBouef’s behaviour or even more subtly when it highlights our narrator’s own flaws and foibles.

The action sequences are well handled, with a real sense of urgency and chaotic peril, but never overly romanticized, the only truly amazing moment being the final shootout where Rooster proves that he has plenty of grit and LaBouef delivers on his own bragging.

John Wayne in Rooster's moment of glory

John Wayne in Rooster’s moment of glory

Verdict: A delightful quick read, extremely well written with realistic characters and a nice humorous side throughout. A thoroughly entertaining book. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Favourite Books I’ve Read in 2012

I’ve read a fair few books this year, and here’s my top 10, divided into two sections- Fiction and Non-Fiction.

Fiction

1. World War Z by Max Brooks

Hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read, with Brooks managing to convey a compelling and disturbingly real view of a the world attempting to rebuild after the zombie plague. By having the events recounted by a diverse group of characters, with Brooks clearly having put in lots of work and thought into crafting a truly global catastrophe.

It’s ingenious and very gripping and extremely creepy, possibly one of the scariest things ever made.

worldwarz

2. Emma and Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

Double whammy of good old fashioned romance with Austen telling charming stories with real wit and warmth and creating fantastically realistic characters. Massively entertaining.

3. A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

The first two volumes in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, these books are massive, sprawling epics which benefit from a constantly shifting focus which allows us to see the wars and intrigues play out from different perspectives. There’s complicated families and alliances coupled with wonderful scheming and double crosses to make it an enthralling read and Martin shows a knack for creating brilliant characters who all have their unique biases and opinions. Gets you totally hooked and ensures you finish every volume eager for the next.

gameofthrones

4. The Millenium Trilogy by Steig Larsson

Larsson’s grim crime novels are rather tough going at times but very gripping and written in this way that matters to be both wonderfully detailed and fast paced. The first book is probably my favourite, but the sequels are gripping reads too, and in the character of Lisbeth he’s created a fantastically iconic character, enigmatic and appealing and quite unlike anything I’ve come across before.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth in the US film version.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth in the US film version.

5. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s short novel of man vs nature is a brilliant quick read, with Hemingway crafting this lyrical, poignant tale of loneliness, aging and the bizarre relationship between men and their prey.

Non-Fiction

1. Dispatches by Michael Herr

Herr’s experiences as a correspondent during the Vietnam war are recounted here in evocative, urgent prose that shines a light on the effect war has on the mind. There are tough moments but there’s also a lot of warmth and humour in a book crafted by a writer who shows impressive insight and honesty in detailing his responses to the often horrific things he witnesses.

dispatches

2. Tough Sh*t by Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith’s memoir is ridiculously entertaining and also works as a profanity laden self help book, encouraging his readers to pursue their dreams, ignore the haters and stay positive. Works best for Smith fans but for those unfamiliar with his work it’s a wonderful introduction to his mix of crude humour and sweet positivity.

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3. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Hillenbrand tells the life story of the Olympic athlete and PoW Louis Zamperini. I’d heard about it because of one horrific story of his ordeal after crashing down in the ocean, but this powerful scene forms only part of the man’s intensely interesting and astonishing life.

4. Sirens by Tom Reynolds

A collection of Renolds’ blog posts about his life as an ambulance crew member. It’s a hugely entertaining book that shines a light on the frustrations and problems confronted by the emergency services. There are heartwarming and sad stories, but there are also entertaining anecdotes about the stupidity of some of the people who come under his care.

5. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Murakami’s entertaining and philosophical examination of his own life as a runner and what he gets from doing it.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO


Book Review: The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyre

This book from 1994 is based on one central question, has kindness and helping others become a thing of the past? McIntyre sets out to see just how kind Americans are by hitchhiking coast-to-coast without any money at all. Transport, food and lodgings must all be provided by the people he meets or he’ll have to go without.

kindness

McIntyre starts off the book having made his decision having seen a hitchhiker that everybody passed, himself included, he’s aware of the reasons not to stop for a stranger especially in America which he describes as “Land of the free and home of the serial killer“. But it wasn’t always this way, in the 50s, 60s and even 70s hitchhicking was pretty common and a way of getting around. McIntyre notes that times have changed as has the attitude towards stopping:

There was a time in this country when you were a jerk if you passed somebody in need. Now you’re a fool for helping. Gangs, drugs, murderers, rapists, thieves, carjackers. Why risk it? I Don’t Want to Get Involved has become a national motto.

But as the journey unfolds it becomes clear that it cuts both ways, people pass McIntyre because they’re suspicious but there are points on his journey when he’s equally distrustful of those who stop.

This never completely leaves him, but as someone who confesses to being riddled with fears McIntyre does become braver, realizing that he can handle more than he thought and coming to realize that even in the cynical 90s Blanche DuBois might have been okay. His instincts get better as the trip goes on and he adapts, camping outdoors and scavenging up grub when need be.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of American life and the quiet, unheralded heroes who exist in everyday life. Human decency appears to be alive and well, and while there are tense moments and countless obscene gestures from passing cars, McIntyre never has to wait too long for somebody who’ll give him a ride a few miles down the road, something to eat or a place to crash.

One of the surprising things about this book is that quite a lot of the people who help him out along the way are pretty damaged, they’ve got issues and dark pasts, but yet they show massive capacity for forgiveness trust and generosity. There are people who have been conned, abused and betrayed and yet they still extend a hand to help others where they could have withdrawn completely.

And they come from all walks of life, from religious leaders and farmers through to a bizarre married couple made up of a hooker and a drug dealer.

These strangers have their own stories, several of them quite fascinating and it makes you want to go out and start chatting to strangers to find out what characters are out there. And it’s increased my desire to see the States, although I doubt I’d hitchhike. I might look for the good in people, but I’ve seen far too many horror movies for that.

It’s well written which you’d expect from a journalist, and McIntyre gets the tone right, capturing the change he undergoes without allowing it to become cheesy. He emerges at the end a more outgoing and optimistic person. He writes with a subtle, quiet sense of humour and lovely honesty. It’s a highly entertaining book and has a real feel good vibe to it.

Verdict: A well written and engaging travel book, based on a brilliant idea and a brave concept. McIntyre is a good narrator and his regular Joe personality makes it easy to relate to. It’s sure to restore your faith in mankind and maybe inspire some itchy feet.  8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith

Right off the bat I have to say I’m a huge Kevin Smith fan, I’ve enjoyed every movie of his I’ve seen (I’m yet to see the most recent two, Cop Out and Red State, but they’re on my LoveFilm list) and he’s kind of a hero of mine, so I was kind of target audience for this book, however, I think that even if you’re not a big fan of his before it’s still a very good book.

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Sure, there are going to be things that take the non-fans a while to adjust too, mainly Smith’s nerdy, foul mouthed writing style. His way of littering his writing with curses and nods to old movies and pop songs may turn off many, but it works for me.

The book serves kind of as a weird hybrid of a memoir and a self-help book, with Smith going over events in his life and kind of explaining how these things have effected his world view, while also offering advice and serving to be oddly inspiring as well.

Smith approaches subjects like his marriage and the death of his father with touching honesty and warmth, and he’s extremely frank about his clashes with Hollywood figures like Bruce Willis and Harvey Weinstein. There’s never a joke too far away, but he does explore some serious issues and moments in his life and there’s genuine honesty, self deprecation and modesty throughout. Its the kind of writing I strive for, a mix of wit, integrity and emotion (I’ve even noticed that I’ve picked up his use of the word “cat” in my own writing).

Smith talks about the factors that led him to fold up the director’s chair, but it avoids becoming a bitter anti-Hollywood tirade and more a kind of self realization that he no longer has stories he needs to use cinema to tell and has found new ways to express his creativity. He’s chosen to focus on things like his live talks and his podcast network (find them here, they’re generally worth checking out) and there’s an encouraging, inspirational tone to the work with Smith telling his readers to go out and chase their dreams, using the “if I can do it, why can’t you?” argument and it really worked on me, as its made me want to try my hand at writing again and maybe even have a go at making some short movies again.

I tore through the book at a rate of knots on a long train journey, and I’m usually the kind of cat who can only read for an hour or so at a time, but I think I read for almost all of the 5 hours I was on the train and eagerly went back to finish it off the next day, it’s that entertaining and life affirming. And throughout I was smiling and chuckling to myself.

Verdict: A wonderfully written, entertainingly vulgar piece of work that serves to fill us in on Smith’s decision to move away from directing and also serves to fire up the creative urge in his readers. Its not for everyone, but it’s definitely worth checking out, even for those not enamored with his movies. 9/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

So pretty much as soon as I finished A Game of Thrones (review here) I bought the Kindle version of this, the second installment of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga.

It picks up shortly after the end of the first book with the Seven Kingdoms in turmoil. Following King Robert’s death his son Joffrey sits on the throne, with his mother Cersei serving as his regent. Robert’s brothers, Stannis and Renly both make claims for the throne. Stannis, the older is the true heir but the younger Renly is far more popular and raises a great army.

Stannis’ Queen has adopted a new religion, headed by a mysterious priestess clad in red and many of his men are suspicious of this and apprehensive of the way the old gods are thrown aside. It appears that magic and the old ways are resurgent which may be due to the birth of the three dragons belonging to Daenerys, the exiled Princess who leads her band of nomadic warriors towards new cities.

Meanwhile, things are difficult for the Stark family. Robb is named King of the North and must fight Joffrey’s supporters and dispatches his mother, Catelyn, to try and negotiate a truce with the brothers.

Robb’s sister Sansa is betrothed to the increasingly abusive and sadistic Joffrey, imprisoned in his castle. His other sister, Arya has been spirited out of the city disguised as a boy, but with raiders and rival armies roaming the countryside her route home to Winterfell is set to be arduous.

Winterfell faces problems as well, the absence of it’s lord meaning it catches the eye of other ambitious parties, and places Robb’s younger brothers in danger. And Bran, struggling with the injuries which have crippled him finds himself tormented by strange dreams.

Stark’s bastard, Jon journeys north of the wall into the wild North to investigate the disappearance of several members of the Watch and others, and discovers a new threat.

Across the sea, Daenerys finds that the dragons open doors for her but also that many would take them from her.

And Joffrey’s uncle, Tyrion must survive the various intrigues of court, including his sister’s machinations as he attempts to defend the city and win back the public who Joffrey has alienated.

Like in the first book the action moves around a lot, with each chapter being told from the third person perspective of a set character. This means that it allows us to view the unfolding war from various sides and rather oddly means that you end up rooting for members of rival factions, especially in the case of Tyrion, who’s clever and sardonic manner makes him one of the most likable characters in the book, especially given the revulsion he feels for his cruel nephew.

Martin ensures that each character is sympathetic and has an individual viewpoint, and that the tone of their chapters are different. Different characters view unfolding events through the prism of their own experiences and personal prejudices and bias, just as we all do in real life.

His characters are wonderfully crafted and he avoids simply doing good vs evil, its a complicated world that he’s created, filled with intrigue and double crossing, the characters laying schemes and playing politics to get what they want.

That’s not to say its not action packed, peril and violence are never far away, lurking in the background and bursting forward in extremely brutal attacks and the battle sequences are written with great intensity and energy. The fights are fast paced, chaotic things which is probably how old style battles would appear.

Its also nice that he’s slowly introducing more and more fantastical elements, which were just background in the first until the arrival of the dragons, but here there’s a sense of monsters reappearing and the world changing around the characters.

Martin is a highly talented writer, infusing the novel with a kind of wry wit and mixing the brutality with more subtle character moments, creating a believable, incredibly detailed and highly engaging world.

Verdict: An incredibly well written book and lots of fun, a real page turner and now I have to get part 3. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Dispatches by Michael Herr

Since my teens I’ve been fascinated by the Vietnam war, my friends and I would sit and watch ‘Nam movies constantly and the whole war and its effect on the American cultural landscape and psyche is something that still interests me.

I think a part of what attracted me to the conflict was that it was the first major war where I could kind of relate to the guys involved. It was the first war that was fought by the new species, the teenager. The World Wars had cost the lives of millions of young men, but they had been different, their society and lifestyle had little in common with my own, whereas the young men sent to Vietnam had an adolescence similar to mine- these were guys who loved pop music, who read comics, who’d watched movies about war.

Like them, my first experience of war was through movies. John Wayne leading his men against the Japanese or the Nazis, a clear cut conflict between good and evil. Sure, death appears in those films but its quick, bloodless and often noble and heroic. You get hit, pass on a message to your girl back home and then slip away quietly.

By my teens enough education and awareness had crept into my consciousness that I began to explore more about war, and the horrors that go along with it. War is something that captivates young men it seems, I think partly due to morbid curiosity, but also to the traditional ideas of heroism and courage that are still passed down (see the tabloids covering of “our brave boys” serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) and because you find yourself wondering what you would have done, how would you have coped.

That’s where Vietnam poses another interesting question. Had I been an American teenager drafted into service would I have gone? All wars following this featuring the UK or countries I relate to like the US haven’t relied on conscription. The guys in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands etc had joined up willingly.

Similarly, unlike the previous big fight, World War II (no offense to those who served in Korea, but for some reason that conflict hasn’t left the same mark on society and aside from M*A*S*H* I know little about it) this wasn’t a clear cut fight. The Nazis were evil and needed to be stopped, the Japanese had committed atrocities and I can understand the revenge aspect felt keenly by Americans.

Vietnam was different. Yes, there was the Cold War hatred and paranoia regarding Communism, but if I was the same person then as I am now, I doubt I would have gone. Well, I like to think I’d stick to my principles, but who knows? Faced with fleeing my home or prison would I have held firm? Or just prayed that I’d make it through a tour?

Similarly, I’ve always wondered if I’d have had the guts to be a conscientious objector during the First World War, which is the only other conflict that says “horror” quite as much as Vietnam. Stories of atrocities, harsh conditions and grim, dreadful fighting. Of shattered, damaged veterans returning to a country which ignored and shunned them due to shame and embarrassment.

I’m still fascinated by it, intrigued by how war effects the men who fight in it, which is why I checked out Michael Herr’s book Dispatches.

Herr was a journalist for Esquire who was sent to cover the conflict and this book is his memoir of that period. He does a marvelous job of capturing the chaos, confusion and danger of the war, bringing you right into a world fraught with peril and populated by a cast of weird, damaged souls trying to live through it all.

Herr doesn’t write it chronologically, dividing the book into different sections and telling a sprawling, introspective narrative of his time in-country. Throughout it all he charts the effects the war has on the soldiers he meets, as well as the psychological impact felt by himself and fellow journalists.

His position leaves him in a odd no-man’s land with the soldiers, he’s there with them but not as a fighter (although he is forced to take up arms at some points) so despite forming relationships with them he remains an outsider. He seems painfully aware of the odd tension between him and his subjects, who may like and even admire his courage or madness in being there by choice, but also a deeper resentment that he can opt out  whenever he wants.

Herr’s writing style is incredibly personal and vivid, capturing the harsh realities of the situation and allowing him to explore how it has effected him. He consistently places himself right at the heart of the action, and there’s an odd euphoria and enjoyment in the danger at times, a kind of manic, adrenalin fuelled thrill that has him laughing and joking with the soldiers despite the horrors around them.

It reminded me a bit of Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, which given my love of HST is one of the highest compliments I can give a book. There’s a similarity in the way Herr seems to have a love-hate relationship with the people he observes, every moment of affection and enjoyment undercut by realizing just how horrific and damaged some of the things he witnesses are. It also shares the same kind of frantic urgency of Thompson’s book and the same knack for beautifully worded statements of great insight.

The portrayal of the fighters is heartbreaking at times, young men made old before their years who you feel will never shake the nightmare they live through. They’re not portrayed as a mass of psychopaths or victims, although many seem to live in both camps at once. Throughout the book they’re shown to be regular guys who have been warped and altered by events and deeds they’ve been party to. Vietnam, the dark, surreal world they now live in has changed them deeply, and there’s a sense that they will struggle to readjust into a world they can no longer relate to (there’s a grim anecdote about a guy who sent a Vietnamese soldier’s ear to his girlfriend back in America and can’t work out why she’s stopped writing to him).

Herr’s smart enough to acknowledge his own failings and naivety and throughout there are nods to the supposed romance of his job, an  admission that his own thoughts and beliefs were coloured by those old films.

Ironically Herr would go on to shape how films deal with war, co-writing the screenplay to Full Metal Jacket, one of the most iconic and grimmest Vietnam war movies. Repeatedly during this book there are moments which seem to have been copied entirely into the film, which, if you’ve seen the film, merely serves to highlight just how nightmarish the situation was and how the situation caused many of the soldiers involved to retreat into a hardened shell of dark, twisted humour and nihilistic cynicism.

Verdict: A stunning, powerful work about the horrors of war and the long lasting effect it can have on the men who fight or observe them. Along with Matt Baker’s ‘Nam it is one of the most heartbreaking, horrifying books I’ve ever read and a reminder of just how awful war really is. Herr is a phenomenally effective, evocative writer and while at times its hard to read some of the stories its worth sticking with it to gain a better understanding of what happened to the men out there. 10/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve only really got into Hemingway’s stuff in the last couple of years, I read For Whom The Bell Tolls and was completely won over and went on to read a few of his short stories. I really dig his style of writing, which while being quite direct, almost simplistic at times has this sense of purity to it and still manages to draw you right into the story and the characters.

This book kind of falls somewhere between the two types of writing I’ve read of Hemingway’s, too long for a short story but quite short for a novel.

The plot is extremely simple, an old man (named as Santiago, but referred to mostly as the old man or “he”) is a fisherman in Cuba. He’s a man who has lived a full life and experienced much, but as he ages he finds himself out-of-luck, having gone 84 days without catching anything. His only friend is a young boy, Manolin, who previously worked on the boat with him, but who’s father has ordered to switch to a more successful boat. On the 85th day Santiago hooks a large fish which pulls him out to sea and which he engages with in an epic struggle which makes up most of the book. Can Santiago defeat the fish and change his luck?

It might not sound like much of a plot, but I assure you this is a cracking read. Hemingway writes sublimely, transforming the struggle between an old man and a fish into so much more, a poignant, engaging story about aging and man’s relationship with nature.

Santiago is an extremely well crafted protagonist and as he’s alone for much of the narrative much of what goes on is in his head, and Hemingway manages to capture the way a mind works when left alone, with Santiago’s thoughts drifting back to memories and wanders off to different subjects like baseball, with Santiago seeming to regard legendary player Joe Dimaggio (I know he’s legendary because he’s one of only a handful of baseball players I can name) as an almost god-like figure of perfection.

It also felt real to me the way that Santiago argues with himself, telling himself to stop wishing for things he doesn’t have, soothing his doubts and steeling himself for the challenge. To me its exactly the same kind of inner argument I have when I’m struggling with something, half of me about to lose it and crack and the other half trying to spur me on and make me stick to it.

Santiago pursues the fish for food and his livelihood, but at the same time there’s a sense that he rather enjoys the pursuit and battle with the fish, a chance to test himself. Hemingway was a man who liked to hunt and other macho pastimes, and there’s that weird attitude of respecting your prey and Santiago throughout has this weird respect and love for the fish, which makes for an interesting inner conflict which increases as their battle with each other goes on.

It lends itself to this odd little dilemma, Santiago needs the fish and wants to bring it in, but yet there’s an odd sense of guilt at bringing in such a magnificent creature, and Hemingway writes the following to show how Santiago attempts to make peace with what he’s done:

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed it for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

I’m not entirely sure I get it, but then I’ve never hunted or fished, and I don’t really understand the whole thing but I kind of get it a bit more after reading this.

From Hemingway to New Girl.

The ending of the book is quite moving, with Santiago having vanquished his foe he must try and bring it in, while fending off sharks and he slowly begins to lose equipment and the fish deteriorates, mirroring the effects age and the struggle have had on his body. At the end he is completely spent, broken and yet as he talks to Manolin there’s still a touch of optimism and planning for the future, reflecting an earlier line from the book: “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”

Its justifiably regarded as a classic, and unlike several other books given that tag nowhere near as daunting given its length, I fully recommend checking this out as its a delightful little book and a satisfying quick read.

Verdict: An extremely well written book, Hemingway conveys the struggles his protagonist encounters both physical and mental and I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the way the human mind works captured so well on the page. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO


Book Review: Mr Nice by Howard Marks

There’s something oddly appealing about being a criminal, an outlaw, surviving on your wits and living on the fringes of society, its why despite having read lots of negative stuff about them and some of their actions I still find the idea of motorcycle gangs kind of cool.

Sons of Anarchy.

Hoard Marks’ autobiography definitely makes the life of an international drug dealer seem jolly good fun.

Marks was a boy from South Wales who’s intelligence got him into Balliol College in Oxford in the mid 60s. He quickly immersed himself in the peace-and-love times, and became a habitual pot smoker.

Having graduated and bored with his life, Marks became a pot smuggler and quite a successful one. Over his career he would become involved with a range of weird characters and would develop ties with MI6, the Mafia, the IRA and the Yakuza. From Pakistan and Lebanon he’d smuggle weed around the world, he was arrested and imprisoned in the UK and attempted to go straight but boredom and his flamboyant lifestyle meant he soon tired of this and returned to drug running.

He was imprisoned again in the 1990s in the USA until he was released in mid 90s when he penned his autobiography and became something of a cult figure and sort of folk hero.

The reason for this is clear, Marks seems to be an incredibly charming bloke and writes with wit and intelligence. Despite the murky world he gets involved with Marks remains quite lighthearted, and its only really the section that documents his time in prison that things get a little serious.

It makes drug smuggling seem like quite a fun way of making a living, although one imagines that its not quite as relaxed now as it was when Marks was breaking new ground in the business in the 60s. Then it appeared to be a business which involved Marks and his fellow Oxford grads who were bored and looking for thrills, part of their drive to do so being their belief that pot should be legal.

Even when involved with an unhinged member of the IRA its still a rather shambolic world of ingenious scheming and capers exploiting custom loopholes. Marks adopts countless aliases and uses his personal charm to swing deals and make connections. There’s a real fun, freewheeling feel to their first few scams, but there is a creeping edge of paranoia and tension as the forces of the law begin to circle.

Marks uses the book to put across his views regarding drug laws and the prison system, and while biased there’s a lot of sense in his views. One can’t help feeling that had pot been legalized back then it would have been a lot better in the long run and stopped the shadier, more violent elements who would later gravitate towards the smuggling and selling of the narcotic.

It sags a little at the middle, but it generally keeps up the pace and is entertaining throughout. Marks’ life of jetsetting to exotic locations and meeting with odd, eccentric characters means there’s no shortage of funny anecdotes and interesting asides.

Verdict: An entertaining and well written autobiography which benefits from a clever and charismatic narrator. Be warned it might make you consider running drugs as a job. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Its weird how your memory works, I’ve seen the movie version of this book a couple of times and usually that makes me nervous of reading the book, because you kind of know what’s coming, but the thing is while I remember a lot of little bits from the film its mainly been reduced to the oft-parodied scenes between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and a smattering of little touches and moments.

So reading the book I found myself not entirely sure of where the story was going, which was cool and allowed me to fully get caught up in the story.

The plot follows a trainee FBI agent, Clarice Starling, who is asked by her boss Jack Crawford to attempt to get convicted serial killer and famed psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter to comply with some psychological tests. Starling visits Lecter in the mental institution where he is imprisoned and after a stumbling start they seem to develop a rapport based on trading information as Lecter is interested by Starling’s background. Following an attack by one of his fellow inmates, which Lecter abhors due to its rudeness he gives Starling information which leads her to discover a severed head hidden among the possessions of one of Lecter’s victims.

Starling is then invited by Crawford to join her in examining the latest victim of the serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill, due to his habit of skinning his victims (a reference lost on me, I’ll admit). Bill has killed 6 victims so far and Crawford is under pressure to catch him, while also dealing with the fact that his wife is terminally ill.

During the examination Starling discovers a moth cocoon stuck in the victim’s throat, which she believes is a clue they should follow and which is matched by a similar discovery within the head.

The hunt for Bill becomes even more fraught and the pressure on Crawford increases when Bill snatches the daughter of a US senator. Crawford and Starling believe that Lecter knows more about Bill and offer him a deal, lying in saying that it comes from the senator. Lecter provides Starling with some ideas and clues, but the situation is spoiled by Chilton, the head of the institution where Lecter is kept. Overly ambitious and arrogant in his skills, as well as harbouring resentment for Starling who rebuffed his advances. Chilton reveals the ruse to Lecter and decides to make his own deal with the senator, which he will then publish about thus increasing his reputation and advance his career.

Crawford however feels that Lecter, who he helped put away will merely toy with the senator and Chilton has endangered her daughter’s life. The senator however, having lost faith in Crawford turns against him and Starling.

Lecter provides them with conflicting information, telling the senator a name to track down while explaining to Starling that Bill is targeting larger women as he intends to make a suit from their skin.

The investigation continues, looking into the clues provided by Lecter as well as following the evidence on the moths. Starling’s discoveries about the senator’s daughters’ private life causes friction with the senator and Starling is threatened with disciplinary proceedings, but decides to take one last chance and meets with Lecter who provides her with the case notes complete with an enigmatic statement.

Can they find the senator’s daughter in time? How much faith can they afford to place in Lecter’s information? And will Starling be able to complete her training and become an FBI agent?

First of all, Thomas Harris is a fantastic writer, but one hell of a messed up cat. The plot and Bill’s motivation and style of killing is extremely gruesome and twisted, but yet utterly captivating, in the way that you can’t turn away from something gross or shocking. What’s even more disconcerting is the fact that Harris flicks between the perspectives of different characters throughout, and there’s something chillingly disturbing about the offhand, unfeeling way that Bill approaches his work and victims.

Harris, however, is more than just some shock tactics gore maker, and shows real skill in the book. He’s clearly researched and thought out the story, crafting a brilliant, suspenseful work which keeps you on the edge of your seat and makes it a real page-turner. The terror ratchets up throughout the book, and by the end its a real “can’t put it down” affair.

Harris’ other major skill is his creation of characters, and while the creepily charming and well mannered Lecter has become his iconic character, helped by the work of Hopkins on the big screen, the rest of the characters are realized well, the stupid selfish motivations of Chilton, the tired and embattled Crawford and the deranged Bill.

Creepy- Lecter as portrayed by Hopkins.

But it is Starling who is his triumph, being a truly strong heroine. Intelligent, strong willed and resourceful she follows her instincts and cracks the case. She struggles under the intensity of Lecter’s analytical mind and her past appears to be troubled, but she shows the necessary grit and strength of character which suggests she will make a good agent.

 

Also, Harris uses her to explore the problems faced by a young, attractive woman who enters into the male dominated world of law enforcement. She is subject to condescension and rumour throughout, and it clearly rankles at times but Starling digs deep and does her best to push through.

Despite the subject matter and a few toe-curlingly disgusting flourishes, its more about the mental side of the serial killing game and the characters than the gore and slayings.

Verdict: A thoroughly good read, Harris crafts a dark, chilling tale of suspense and his characterization is brilliant. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.